TTuesday sees the return of one of three finely crafted dramas set in the north of England that have emerged over the past five years from writer Sally Wainwright’s charged keyboard. The second series of Happy valley comes after three rounds of Bafta’s winning 70-year-old love story Last Tango in Halifax and four series of the female police series Scott & Bailey.
Together, they form a cutting-edge work, at the same time funny, poignant, realistic and discreetly deep. None of them are flashy stars and all of them have become word of mouth hits. Indeed, both Last Tango and Scott & Bailey were initially refused by the BBC and ITV.
Finally, word got around about Wainwright. More than 25 years after a career founded on uncompromising and down to earth values, she finds herself surprisingly in fashion.
The first series of Happy valley, starring Sarah Lancashire as a hard-headed police sergeant in West Yorkshire, won a Bafta for Best Drama Series and Wainwright won another Bafta for Best Writer. It told the story of Sergeant Cawood, a woman struggling to come to terms with her daughter’s suicide and the release from prison of the alleged rapist she blamed for the death.
It was gritty and powerful stuff, full of tense domestic scenes, heart-pounding drama, and Wainwright’s particular specialty: hard-hitting, punchy dialogue. Few writers can make their characters speak with the kind of spiky naturalism that sprinkles a Wainwright script. People talk like they do in real life, only with the boring bits cut out.
Wainwright recognizes that his greatest strength is his keen ear for speech. “I think I’ve always wanted to write dialogue rather than prose or poetry,” she said recently. “When I was seven I started to write down what people said – it was something I had to do. I think I was born with it. It’s like being able to draw or paint.
Although she started writing for The Archers, she really cut her teeth Coronation Street, that writers’ training ground that also produced Paul Abbott and Jimmy McGovern. Coronation Street taught her the discipline of storytelling, an aspect of writing that, unlike character and dialogue, she really had to work on. Intimidated by the high quality of the writers in the room, she didn’t speak at script conferences for three years, but her scripts were better than anyone else’s.
She worked on the soap opera for five years and was particularly influenced during her time in Granada by her mentor figure, actor and writer Kay Mellor, for the women’s football drama whose Playing on the field she wrote several scripts. As Wainwright said, “Kay taught me a lot about technique and structure. But more importantly, she taught me to stand up for myself as a writer and not to take shit off people.
We feel that Wainwright did not need a lot of teaching to defend himself. She came out of The Archers because she thought the characters were too nice and bourgeois and she was fired from Emmerdale after six episodes when she told this newspaper that the writers of the series had no creative freedom. As she said to an interviewer in 2000: “If I find myself in a situation that I don’t want to be in, I go. I don’t sit down and suffer if it’s something I’m not passionate about.
But it would be wrong to see Wainwright as some sort of demanding artist. At their best, soap operas find drama in the everyday, and the hallmark of Wainwright’s work is that, even dramatic, there is a respect for drudgery and the monotonous nature of much of life. In Scott & Bailey, for example, much of the police work is mundane, and the characters are plagued by the kind of real-life domestic issues that normally receive little more than hype in police procedure.
Wainwright grew up between Huddersfield and Brontë Country in Yorkshire. She says her home was not a particularly happy home. “I don’t think my parents ever got along. I guess I grew up in a house with a pretty tense atmosphere. It makes you pretty fucked up and calm and shy, without much to say. But that’s also, I guess, why I’m a writer, so I can’t be too critical of that. If I had grown up in a more normal household, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to be one.
Although she moved to London after studying English at York University (she now lives in the Cotswolds), Yorkshire is an area she returns to frequently in her television writing. “I did a lecture in Halifax last year,” she recently told an interviewer, “and this woman stood up and said I made a lot of money writing about the Yorkshire, but I don’t really live there. She reminded me why I moved.
It’s a typically bittersweet commentary that, like Happy valleytitle, betrays Wainwright’s appreciation for irony. She doesn’t romanticize Yorkshire, showing off her rough beauty alongside her even rougher belly. But what interests him most is to offer the north of England an authentic vision that owes nothing to the transplanted images of America.
“A lot of British television is now trying to be cool,” she complained, “and what a lot of people think is cool is American.” She says a director at the start of filming Happy valley wanted it to look like Nevada. Fortunately, it ended up looking a lot like Yorkshire – majestic countryside surrounding towns in the shadow of industrial decline.
Her original first drama is also set in Yorkshire, a suburb of Leeds. At home with the Braithwaites, which lasted 26 episodes between 2000 and 2003, followed the fate of a family who won £ 38million in the lottery. The main character, played by Amanda Redman, initially keeps her newfound wealth a secret from the rest of the family.
It illustrates two themes that will recur in Wainwright’s work: the extraordinary in the ordinary and the highlighting of strong female characters. The second tendency has led her to be called a feminist writer, and there is certainly an argument that a show like Scott & Bailey is a sparkling feminist retort to much of the macho posture that passes for a crime drama. One of his finest pleasures was the way he brought to light the camaraderie of female friendship, so often described as a passive-aggressive bitchy exchange.
But in reality, all she’s done is give women the kinds of roles – complex, confrontational, funny, and imperfect – that are usually reserved for men.
She is not, she says, anti-men, rejecting the idea that her male characters are weak. ” I do not think so. I don’t focus on them. I feel it because there is this perception that I consciously write men down as pussies. I do not.”
If she’s been involved in some form of dramatic rebalancing, then perhaps her most striking success has been Last Tango in Halifax, which focused on one of the most overlooked areas of society on television: retirees.
A critical and audience success that took everyone, especially his commissioners, by surprise, he was inspired by Wainwright’s widowed mother who fell in love, at the age of 75, with a man whom she originally met in college. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been a fanfare of cuteness, but instead Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid were rewarded with a script that was in turn extremely touching and mischievously tart.
Above all, it connected, like all of Wainwright’s best work, to the irrepressible nature of the human mind. Because even if she is never afraid to venture into the darkest corners of everyday life, she does not wince for the sake of being sinister.
However, Happy valley was charged with exactly that sin, as a lot of white noise was made about unnecessary violence, especially the episode where Wainwright made her directorial debut. It featured a scene in which the Lancashire character was severely beaten by the alleged rapist, played by James Norton. “Does the brutality of the BBC Happy valley go too far? “asked the still worried Daily mail.
But there was nothing free about the episode. Wainwright showed violence for what it is: violent. In real fighting, people get injured, often seriously. And just as she seeks to show people how they’re at their best – when they’re funny with friends or brave when they’re scared – she doesn’t shy away from what happens when they’re at their worst.
In the world of Wainwright there are happy valleys and sad peaks, but the peak that her writing currently occupies is one of the most uplifting shows on British television.
THE WAINWRIGHT FILE
Born Sally Wainwright in 1963 in Huddersfield and raised in Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire. She is married with two children and lives in the Cotswolds.
The best of times Earn two Baftas for Last Tango in Halifax in 2013, even though it made her wonder why it had taken so long. “You think, ‘Why haven’t I been noticed before?’ “
The worst of times Work on Emmerdale, although his most difficult time may have been working as a bus driver in London while writing at night.
What she says From his frustration at having been neglected for much of his career: “It’s the opposite of confidence. It is to have a chip on the shoulder. I think it’s very Nordic. And it’s a classy thing.
“I think human beings are mostly funny… even if things get dark, we tend to respond with humor. “
What others say “Sally Wainwright is the greatest writer around. She manages to balance character and plot beautifully – usually one is sacrificed for the other, but Sally somehow manages to maintain both. Actor James Norton